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Wesleyan University Press
Encounters with Chinese Writers

Encounters with Chinese Writers

by Annie Dillard


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Winner of the New England Book Show Award

It's been a pilgrimage for Annie Dillard: from Tinker Creek to the Galapagos Islands, the high Arctic, the Pacific Northwest, the Amazon Jungle—and now, China. This informative narrative is full of fascinating people: Chinese people, mostly writers, who encounter American writers in various bizarre circumstances in both China and the U.S. There is a toasting scene at a Chinese banquet; a portrait of a bitter, flirtatious diplomat at a dance hall; a formal meeting with Chinese writers; a conversation with an American businessman in a hotel lobby; an evening with long-suffering Chinese intellectuals in their house; a scene in the Beijing foreigners' compound with an excited European journalist; and a scene of unwarranted hilarity at the Beijing Library. In the U.S., there is Allen Ginsberg having a bewildering conversation in Disneyland with a Chinese journalist; there is the lovely and controversial writer Zhang Jie suiting abrupt mood changes to a variety of actions; and there is the fiercely spirited Jiange Zilong singing in a Connecticut dining room, eyes closed. These are real stories told with a warm and lively humor, with a keen eye for paradox, and with fresh insight into the human drama.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819561565
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Publication date: 11/01/1984
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 117
Product dimensions: 4.75(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.34(d)

About the Author

ANNIE DILLARD's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek won a Pulitzer Prize in 1974. Her other books are Tickets for a Prayer Wheel, Holy the Firm, Living by Fiction, and Teaching a Stone to Talk. She was born in Pittsburgh and received a B.A. (1967) and an M.A. (1968) from Hollins College. She is now adjunct professor of English at Wesleyan University. A chapter of this book was the Phi Beta Kappa lecture at Harvard/Radcliffe n 1983. She lives in Middletown, Connecticut with her husband, Gary Clevidence, and their daughter, Rosie.

Read an Excerpt



We are being feted at a banquet in Beijing, in one of a restaurant's many private banquet rooms. The room is drab and charmless; the food is wonderful.

Our hosts, members of the Beijing Writers Association, are mostly men and women in their fifties, sixties, seventies, and eighties. They are people who have witnessed, participated in, and in some cases sacrificed for, the liberation of China. In their early lives they saw civil war, and world war, and foreign occupation, and more civil war — all turning around in January 1949, when Mao's Communists, many of them veterans of the 1935 Long March, walked into Beijing. They deposed the local warlords and made it their capital. By the fall of that year they had taken the big port cities on the east coast. It was all over, essentially, but the shouting, which has continued on and off ever since. The Cultural Revolution, which lasted ten years until 1976, was only the most recent and ruinous of a series of internal purgative campaigns. Most of the Chinese people in this room, as intellectuals, were to various degrees among the Cultural Revolution's victims. Some of them, however, were bureaucrats who were canny enough to stay out of trouble.

My attention now is on one of our many hosts, seated beside me. Wu Fusan, I will call him, is a politically powerful man in his late sixties or seventies. I have watched him in action for days; he is the sharpest of sharpies, the smoothest of smoothies. The others at the table interest me more, I think, but here he is — beside me, speaking English.

Wu Fusan is a tall, soft-voiced old man with a ready, mirthless laugh. His arms are long; his fingers are light and knobbed, like bamboo. He wears a tailored gray jacket. He jokes a lot, modestly, about his powerful position. When he laughs, his face splits open at the jaw, revealing a lot of gum and teeth. His white hair is just long enough in front to hold the suggestion of a part; the hair shoots out diagonally in two directions from this part, giving him a windblown look, as if he were perpetually standing in the bow of a ship.

He is infinitely relaxed. He lounges in his chair; he tilts back his long head and brings out his words slowly, crooningly, from deep in his throat. He makes no effort to be heard; if you want to hear him, you must lean into him and lower your head, as if you were bowing. We chat.

His eyes do not seem to be involved in his words at all. Instead, from their tilted-back position, his eyes are studying you with a bored, distant, amused look — the way we would watch Saturday-morning cartoons on television for a minute or two, if we had to. He laughs his mirthless laugh at whatever you say, and at whatever he says, as if some greatly successful joke has been made, or some wonderful coincidence has been discovered, which makes the two of you accomplices. Usually this is the laugh of a nervous woman in society — but the woman uses her eyes, and Wu Fusan does not. He nods vigorously and tightens his legs; he is absolutely breathless with laughter; the lower half of his face is broken with laughter; he murmurs "Yes, Yes," in an educated British accent — and his eyes continue their bored appraisal. I have written him off as a hack, a politico, a man of the world without depth or interest. I am, as usual, wrong.

I learn later that Wu Fusan's class background is excellent: his father was a poor peasant. I learn still later — in a manner I will shortly relate — that his personal background is so impeccable that in the Cultural Revolution he lost only his books. Red Guards confiscated them because he spoke English and was known to have relatives overseas.

It is rude to drink alone in China. When someone at your table wants to drink his mao-tai, he raises his glass to you, and you are obliged to drink with him. Our host, Wu Fusan, has offered several formal toasts to us foreign guests seated at this table. Now, as the conversation splinters, and the beautiful, fragrant dishes pass before us one by one, he raises his tiny crystal glass to me, and we drink.

As we drink, Wu holds my eyes. As we lower our glasses and tilt them briefly towards each other, Wu holds my eyes. There is something extraordinary in his look. This occurs a dozen times over the course of the banquet; I have ample opportunity to see just how extraordinary this look is.

The man is taking my measure. He is measuring what I can only call my "spirit" — my "depths," such as they are. No one has ever looked at me this way. There is nothing personal or flirtatious about it. He is going into my soul with calipers. He is entering my eyes as if they were a mineshaft; he is testing my spirit with a plumb line.

His gaze is calm and interested. He is not looking at my face, nor my eyes, in any usual way; he is not particularly even looking at me. He is examining something inside me; he gauges my "strength" as if he were counting the coils of a loaded spring. All this takes less than a minute. We put our glasses down. The first time it happens, I think, What on earth was that all about? But there is no time to think about it; we resume small talk around the table. With us are other "literary workers" — Chinese and American publishers, scholars, and writers.

Every time we drink together, Wu Fusan and I, it happens again, and I learn more. I hate to think what he is learning — but I won't lower my eyes. I let him look; I hide nothing. What's to hide? I don't even know how to hide. You need to know, I think, that the ideas to which I have committed my life have required no more effort of me than occasional trips to the library. My life has set me at little risk, put me under no hardship. In this, I and many Americans my age differ from most of the world's people. I am a light-hearted woman born at the end of World War II into American peace and plenty. He can see all this easily, I believe. I wonder why he bothers. I think it is a habit with him. The conversation is desultory.

My strongest impression is this: that Wu Fusan has been down this particular well — the well of the human spirit — many times, and he can go a hell of a lot farther. The deeper he goes, the more interested he gets, but, I stress, his is an analytical interest, and, I stress, he hits bottom. My depths are well within reach of his plumb line. He pays out his line slowly, drink by drink, double-checking, and gets his answer. I wish I were deeper, but there you are.

His look is neither sexual nor combative, although there was considerable sizing up involved. He was sizing up my spirit, my heart and strength, my capacity for commitment. This is what counts to a Maoist — in a friend and in an enemy — why shouldn't he be in the habit of looking for it?

Still, it was an odd, unverifiable impression for me to have, and I doubted it. It was too vague, internal, and groundless to count as anything but imagination.

Later I met a woman in China whose thinking I trusted. She was an Italian who had lived in China for years and had close Chinese friends. I tried to describe to her Wu Fusan's deep, measuring look.

"That's right," she said. "That's what they do. You weren't imagining it. This is their great area of expertise. Have you read much Chinese literature? Most of it, for thousands of years, is about this one thing: the human spirit in all its depth and complexity. Whole stories hinge on some small human variation, some quirk of the interior life. There is nothing they do not already understand. It makes them peaceful, at ease with all people. When I am alone with a Chinese man, I am as peaceful as if I were alone with only myself. Everything is known. Western men," she added unexpectedly, and not unsympathetically, "cannot see any of this."

Now the waitress brings the final soup to our banquet table. We are chatting politely. I am not thinking of our extraordinary toasting; I will sort all that out later. Not much is being said. Wu Fusan continues his paroxysms of social laughter, clapping his bony hands on his bony knees. Is this your first visit to China? We hope you will soon return.

I ask Wu where he's from. This is a standard polite question in China. He is not from Beijing, he says; he is from Sichuan Province — which is over 1,000 miles away. Paying very little attention, I continue.

"How long have you lived in Beijing?"

Unexpectedly he gives me a little amused glance and shrugs.

"Since we took it."



We are meeting with members of a big-city branch of the Chinese Writers Association, with publishers and editors, scholars, writers, and translators. There are six of us — American scholars, publishers, and writers. There are sixteen of them, our Chinese hosts — men in their fifties, sixties, or seventies. We all shake hands.

From the dark, decrepit hallway we have been shown into this light, odd meeting room. Every office building in China seems to have one like it. Against each wall are enormous overstuffed chairs and couches, square, matching, with lace antimacassars and doilies. There is new, red velvet upholstery. The windows are curtainless. Sit down!

Here we all are — we foreigners, eager to please, to extend the hand of friendship, to enjoy a meeting of minds, to sell books. And here they all are — these handsome and alert men, sitting smiling and at various degrees of ease in their red velvet chairs.

They are China's literary establishment, an establishment which includes, as does ours, some people who have long since abandoned art for politics and for the preservation and enjoyment of their reputations, people whose good manners, personal connections, and canniness have buoyed them to the top. Unlike ours, however, China's literary establishment carries a top-heavy freight of publishers, political critics, and bureaucrats, many of whom wield real power. There are also active writers, writers whose passions are literary and whose ambitions are for the quality of their work.

The head man, an old pro, is relaxed. He smokes; he jokes; he knows he can get through this just fine. After all, he plays host to over sixty such foreign delegations a year. He is paid to do this; he is what the Chinese call a waiban, wittily translated as a "barbarian handler." The others, lower-ranked and younger, seem less certain. They sit oddly on the edge of their chairs, ankles crossed. Some literary matters are touchy issues in China. And one must, at a formal meeting, be polite to foreigners without seeming to like them.

"Welcome to our group," the head man says. It begins. The interpreters lean forward, concentrating. While we remain seated, there are introductions all around, in order of rank, with titles — the deputy director, the vice editor, the deputy editor-in-chief. The men are all wearing Sun Yatsen jackets, blue or gray, of very fine cotton, tailored and lined. Those of higher rank will eventually loosen their collars; the day is hot.

We learn, over the morning, more things about these people: this one taught at Brown, that one is translating The Leatherstocking Tales, and most of them have been in prison.

Not in the room, of course, are any of the young writers and editors of those unofficial literary magazines which flourished for a year or so until 1980, when police closed them. (One such magazine was halted after its ninth issue, which contained such manifestoes as "the starting point of poetry should be the poet's self," and "I'm opposed to the stranglehold on people's souls by a stereotyped style.")

We have all acknowledged introductions by nodding. The head man lights another cigarette. "Let's have an informal meeting this morning. Here are, for example, Mr. Wu and Mr. Zhang, very active today in literature, and both very humorous people." There is a pause. The Chinese stiffen.

Today the usual tea-serving maids do not seem to be available, so the woman writer pours the tea. There is always one woman. She may have the second-highest rank in the room, or she may have written the novel most admired all over China. It takes her fifteen minutes to pour the tea, and she will do this three or four times in the course of the morning. After she serves, she takes an inconspicuous seat, sometimes on the one little hard chair stuck behind the real chairs.

If she is forced to speak, she smiles continuously, ducking her head, perhaps covering her mouth out of bashfulness, and laughing disarmingly between phrases, as if she simply cannot help the silliness of her remarks. Later at an evening banquet she will calmly drink everyone under the table, make pointed and even sarcastic cracks, and hold my bare arm in the sweetest, most natural way.

Now there is a meeting at hand. It will last all morning. Tea has been served.

"It is cool today in comparison to tomorrow," our host offers through a young interpreter. We can only agree.

After a brief introduction to the production unit at hand, and all its pomps and works, we are let loose to ask questions. Our host has already discovered from other meetings with us that we are harmless; we are too ignorant to cause damage. For them it is, I think, like talking to young children about what you did in the war. Whatever you did, the memory of which might be quite painful to you, will fortunately never be touched on by the children's little questions, always so innocently wide of the mark. Their own futures, for some, may depend on their positions on national literary issues — for example, may a story's hero, whose revolutionary ideals are correct, have flaws? — but we don't have the sense to ask such questions, and we have the courtesy not to press points. We want to know what it is about Herman Wouk that obsesses them so, and how manuscripts are chosen for publication, and in what sort of theoretical framework writers are composing. (If we had no chance to talk to real writers about real issues, or about craft, that is simply the nature of formal groups. The Chinese writers I travelled with later in the United States had no such chance either, and it frustrated them.) The conversation had a pleasingly surreal quality, largely because we constantly questioned people outside their areas of expertise — as if a Chinese writer were to ask an American publishing house sales manager about prosody, or, more aptly, as if a Chinese writer were to quiz an aspiring American novelist about Chinese literature.

"We have translated into Chinese many works of literary criticism from Europe and the United States. For example, Aristotle's Poetics."

"Speaking personally, I am very fond of contemporary American fiction. For example, Rebecca."

Someone uses the phrase "human nature," and there is a bewildering explosion of laughter. It is nervous laughter. For it turns out that "human nature" is the key phrase in what is at the moment the key issue, the heart of the political controversy. Mao said that there is no such thing as "human nature;" there is only class nature. To talk about human nature is, then, to undermine the theoretical basis of socialism.

Actually there is a nice continuity between classical Chinese literature and Communist Chinese literature. It is an old Confucian idea that literature should serve the state. Confucius himself is said to have edited (or censored) Chinese literature: he read more than 3,000 poems for an anthology — the Book of Songs, which contains only 305 poems — rejecting those which were not "serviceable" to the social order.

At any rate, we learn that literary life in China is very much in flux. Foreign writing is pouring in, at apparent random: Theodore Dreiser, Joyce Carol Oates, Agatha Christie, Mark Twain, Bernard Malamud, Sydney Sheldon, Irving Wallace, Benjamin Franklin. Yet Chinese writers are still mostly confined to writing fiction about idealized workers, peasants, and soldiers.

We ask around the room: What are your goals as a writer? We get a series of thoughtful answers, charmingly translated: "The goals of my writing are like the goals of others: to help the understanding of the people, or perhaps to travel."

"To hold a mirror up to life."

"To raise the level of the people about science and technology."

"To write for the people. I ask myself, 'What is the requirement of the people?' But most of all, the real world."

"I am interested in the relationship between art and idea. My works have three main ideas:

one, that history is created by laboring people; two, that China can exist as a nation; and three, where to go next? In my short stories I try to answer the question of young people, where to go next."

In fact, Chinese writers can do both more and less than they're telling.

One man, whose wife is a high official, has been experimenting with stream-of-consciousness technique. One woman, who is a Party member, is able to deal with some real social problems in her work, such as the Chinese feminist issue: if the state requires a woman to work, how can she give enough time to her family? On the other hand, when a poet, in a little poem, likened the Yellow River to a shroud, it made a sensation: how patriotic is that? Even foreign writers have the sense to praise their rivers: the Mississippi, the Danube, the Don. What goals could possibly be served by running down the Yellow River with such a negative simile?


Excerpted from "Encounters With Chinese Writers"
by .
Copyright © 1984 Annie Dillard.
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Author's Note
A Man of the World
The Meeting
At the Dance
Sunning a Jinx
The Shanghai Worker
Some Notes On Reading
Saving Face
The Journalist
Zhang Jie
What Must They Think
Not Too Easy
Singing the Blues

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